Take a moment and think about what being “stoic” means to you. Many of us imagine hardened, emotionless people who face the world without expressing themselves, their emotions, or their complaints. But did you know that stoicism, which has been around for centuries, has principles that we can implement into our lives to improve our health?
Stoicism advocates for being calm in adversity, which, after a year and a half of a pandemic, is something all of us could probably strive for. The Hellenistic philosophy originated in the third century BCE and grew in popularity throughout the Roman Empire. Nowadays, stoicism can be viewed as an essential tool for personal wellbeing offering a plethora of mental benefits, from decreasing obsessive thinking, burnouts, and stress, while simultaneously strengthening resilience, self-efficacy, and promoting emotion regulation.
Far from being the “anti-emotion” philosophy, stoicism is actually considered the philosophical foundation for Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). Like stoicism, CBT views thinking patterns as the source for our emotions.
Stoicism can benefit both your work and personal lives! Highly stressful environments such as medical settings have incorporated stoic principles to help their employees cope with the stressors of the workplace; the practices are additionally supported for physicians who care for medical outliers (that is, people who have longer or more complicated illnesses than normal). Stoicism can even be embodied to help relieve the effects of burnout. As if this wasn’t enough proof, for those who are studying, stoicism can relieve students of stress, by altering the way they respond to challenges!
Stoicism: more than what you think
Now that we’ve seen the benefits of stoicism, what exactly is stoicism? Contrary to the common misconceptions of stoicism focusing on apathy, a lack of emotions, and dysfunction, the actual goals of stoicism include fulfillment (eudaimonia) and happiness through overcoming intrusive emotions and thoughts (apatheia). Understanding the main principles can help us implement them into our lives to improve our mental health.
“Waste no more time arguing what a good person should be. Be one” – Marcus Aurelius
When bad or stressful things occur, it can be tempting to blame an external force.
I didn’t get the job because the rain ruined my hair before the interview.
The traffic jam made me miss out on that important meeting, and I missed a chance for a promotion.
I can’t travel because of the bad economy – I don’t have enough money.
While things such as the weather or the economy are out of our control, there are things we can control: our thoughts and how we react to them through our behaviors. This is one of the main focuses of stoicism: center our attention on the factors we can control. Detach ourselves from the factors we cannot control – meaning, don’t let those uncontrollable things have our emotional energy. Instead, channel that energy into ourselves.
Envisage Events in Advance
“Rehearse them in your mind: exile, torture, war, shipwreck. All the terms of our human lot should be before our eyes.” Seneca
Hopefully, envisioning an impending shipwreck won’t be something that we’ll need to do anytime soon. But what if we envisioned the things that could go wrong – and right – in our lives, and mentally practice responding to them?
This psychological technique, introduced by Seneca, is one of the keystones of stoicism. The fancy term for this is “premeditation,” which in this case means imagining adversity, or challenges we may face. When we practice this, we become less shocked by unexpected events because we have practiced training our brains to handle them (Robertson, 2013).
Here’s how we can practice premeditation:
- Close your eyes. Be entirely focused on your breath. Inhale. Exhale.
- Visualize. Try to immerse yourself in your situation to make it as realistic as possible. Engage all of the senses. What do you see, hear, feel, taste, and touch?
- Acknowledge the emotions you are feeling. Identify, name, and recognize the gut emotions that you’re experiencing at this moment – but don’t judge them.
- Acceptance. Whatever you visualize, accept it as it is. Try not to resist it by changing the situation into a good one or ignoring the emotions that come with them.
- Realization and Thankfulness: Recognize, and be thankful, that this situation is not currently realistic. Be thankful that you took the time to train your brain and prepare for future situations.
Amor Fati: the love of fate
“Love your fate, which is, in fact, your life.” – Nietzche
It’s human nature to fight. We do it all the time – it’s one of our primary survival mechanisms. Sometimes, fighting can be good: these survival instincts can save our lives. Sometimes, this instinct can cause us more pain and trouble – but this is where stoicism saves the day, yet again!
Another pillar of stoicism is embracing our fate in whatever form it comes. This entails loving what we do, in whatever forms comes, good or bad. This doesn’t mean that something necessarily needs to happen for a greater purpose. Rather, it focuses on the fact that once something has happened, it’s in the past. You can’t change it. What you can do, however, is choose how you react to it and move forward.
Accepting our fate isn’t easy. Loving it definitely isn’t. Just think of how much less pain and suffering there would be if we didn’t dwell on the past! Practicing amor fati will help us, in time, be more grounded in reality. Implementing this into our lives takes practice. The first step is accepting the situation – the second step is loving it, or approaching it with a positive attitude.
Here we can practice viewing a situation as negative, or with apathy and resignation. Instead, situations are neutral and we can try to respond positively. Doing so has positive effects, such as reducing emotional stress.
Let’s take a rainy day for example. Instead of being grumpy about the weather, which we have absolutely no control over, try premeditating (envisioning what could go wrong, and preparing by taking an umbrella), and finding joy in the rain, instead of sorrow.
Journaling, but Stoically
“I will keep constant watch over myself and – most usefully – will put each day up for a review.” – Seneca
We already know that the contemporary form of journaling provides a plethora of benefits for the writer. However, people who practice stoicism aim to bring this practice into their philosophy.
Meditations by Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius is perhaps the most renowned reference of embodying a philosophy through a journal practice. His journals provide us with his reflections.
Complaining does not serve us.
When we moan and groan about the things we can’t control, the only thing we do is inflict further pain on ourselves, by enhancing the negativity. Practicing premeditation and amor fati can help you avoid this!
Leverage logic to navigate difficulties.
There are many ways to incorporate stoicism into journaling, but the most common versions are for the morning and the evening.
When we journal in the morning, we can try to envision a compass for thriving throughout the day. Epictetus devised these questions with the comparison to an athlete creating their daily workout in mind.
- How can I progress towards my goals?
- What is needed to face any irrational fears?
- Am I lacking the courage or discipline to do so? If so, how can I fix this?
Evening journaling utilizes questions similar to what Seneca used to ask.
- What bad habit did I correct today?
- In which ways am I better than I was before?
The Virtues as leverage for enduring stoic practices
“If a virtue promises happiness, prosperity, and peace, then progress in virtue is a progress in each of these” – Epictetus
Virtues are like the north star guiding us on our paths through life. They guide us as tools to help us accept circumstances that are not under our control, address the things we can change, and acknowledge the differences between what we can and can’t control. This practice can be found not just in stoicism, but also in CBT, Alcoholics Anonymous, and the Catholic Faith, such as with these lines from the Serenity Prayer:
“Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”
Common stoic virtues include discipline, wisdom, morality, and courage.
- Discipline refers to our ability to manage our desires and to take control of our actions.
- Wisdom is the ability to separate the things that are good for us from the things that are bad for us, which drives us to happiness.
- Morality discusses the way we act in kindness and fairness to individuals and society.
- Courage, in stoic philosophy, entails the endurance of discomfort and painful situations.
Incorporating stoic principles into our lives
Practicing stoicism is about embodying the principles and utilizing them in times of difficulty. Tools such as journaling, meditating, or talking to a friend can help us reflect, practice, and implement these principles in our lives. We don’t need to be strict stoic philosophers to benefit from stoic ideas. We can start by differentiating the things we can control from the things we cannot (for example, the weather versus our mood about the weather). We can practice dealing with difficult situations by anticipating and envisioning them in advance. We can work to accept and love the events that happen in our lives and work towards reaching tranquility.